Jeff Whitehead and Texas Music
A Night at Floore's Country Store
Website for Jeff Whitehead: www.jeffwhiteheadmusic.com
Link to iTunes album: http://bit.ly/1iaz9O4
For over 60 years, John T. Floore Country Store has hosted Texas and American music legends alike. This quintessential Texas Honky Tonk has hosted such legendary performers as Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, B.B. King, Little Richard and many many more. Known by many as the musical “birthplace” of Willie Nelson, Willie immortalized John T. Floore in his hit recording “Shotgun Willie”. John T. Floore and Wille Nelson were partners in the original Willie Nelson Music Company. In the March 2001 issue of Texas Monthly, John T. Floore Country Store was listed as one of the “50 Things Every Texan Should Do”
We walked into Floore's Country Store in Helotes, Texas, one night in June to hear Jeff Whitehead. Floore's is a Texas Honky Tonk that has hosted, among others, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, B.B. King, Little Richard. Really now, that's not a bad lineup. If that's Honky Tonk, let there be more!
There's no (known) connection between Jeff Whitehead and Alfred North Whitehead, but we liked his last name and we like singer-songwriters. We've profiled more than a few in JJB: for example, Dana Falconberry, Hope Montgomery, Thao Nyugen, Chris Mosley, Chris Milam, and our Lovin' Spoonful soulmate, Jerry Yester. And then, of course, there's the psycho-western band called The Frontier Circus. You'd think from the name they are western, but they are really happily psycho.
So to date we've not profiled any in the Texas singer-songwriting tradition and we liked Jeff's music. He was sincere, polite to his audience, lyrically engaging, melodically diverse, serious about his music, filled with stage presence but not encumbered by theatricality. There was something genuine and kind of innocent about him. He sounded like a Texas singer-songwriter to us. He would have been at home in a college coffee house, but tonight it was a Texas Honky Tonk. He was nice enough to answer some questions for us, giving us insight into the mind of a singer-songwriter (at least this one) and a desire to share his music with you. Enjoy his music and go to his website.
Some say that there are three kinds of selves that are part of the performing artist; so let’s assume that there are three Jeff Whitehead’s: (1) the real person, from College Station or there-around, with your joys and sorrows, born of struggle and hope; (2) the voice in a song written by you, of which there may be several (but with common characteristics, e.g. male, young, Texan) and (3) the persona you hope to present as a whole, based on album covers and manners of performance. These three Jeff’s overlap but are also different. For example, the “real person” may be different from the voice of a song and the persona. How important is it, to you, to have overlap between the three? Would you consider it inauthentic to write and sing a song with a voice that is genuinely foreign to your personal experience? (E.g. the voice of a woman, or someone who’s just kind of ‘happy,’ or a small child, or an aging grandfather.) Or, by contrast, do you think that, as you progress, you’d like to write some songs with their experiences in mind, too? Must a song be grounded in the experience of the real self.
I don’t worry too much about whether the three selves overlap. I’m reminded of the famous quote by William James, “A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.” It would be impossible for the world to have a full understanding of an individual who is comprised of a complex collection of life experience, opinions, and interests. It is easier from a marketing and branding perspective to pick a few things that are true to the artist and create a cohesive narrative to represent him/her. At the end of the day, I just want to write and sing a song that I can believe.
I would never limit myself to my own experience. In my mind, the honesty we talk about in songwriting comes from the human experience as a whole. A song may not be autobiographical in a literal sense but it can be honest if it contains truths based on emotions or experiences you’ve witnessed or felt. As long as I’m not pandering to a certain demographic, I think a song comes from a truthful place.
How important is brokenness? We can take your fictional memoir as a point of departure for considering this further. Most of the images are dark and violent. Some of them may well be biographical, but things don’t need to be literally true in order to speak to what we might call the imaginal self. ( An imaginal self is a self we can imagine being, even if we haven’t actually lived through it; we all have imaginal selves as well as real selves; they are always in process of further development; and they are blended together in how we try to live our lives). One of your aims as a singer-songwriter is to help others (and yourself) discover imaginal selves, maybe especially those that are a bit broken. Do you think that there are viable alternatives to the Townes Van Zandt model?
My aim as a songwriter is to evoke emotion. I think the strongest emotions center around love or death. Drama is in conflict and extremes. It’s no surprise that people’s favorite songs are heartbreaking or uplifting. It’s fun to be transported by a song to a place, to be drawn in to the point of being lost. I don’t necessarily think I aim to help them discover a broken imaginal self, but a negative experience can leave a long lasting impression and a sense of brokenness that a song can dredge up from memory. We are looking for that connection, that reminder that you’re not the only one that’s seen hard times.
I don’t think everyone needs to be as dark as Townes. We need happy songs, love songs; we need variation. Townes’ strength came from the poetic nature of his lyrics and his ability to get to the core of an emotion or situation. “If I needed You” is one of my favorite Townes Van Zandt songs, and it’s as hopeful as a song can be. But you get the sense that it comes from an honest place.
Related to the latter is the question of angst? One of the singer-songwriters I profiled in JJB (Dana Falconberry from Austin) said that in her earlier period of songwriting, everything needed to be about angst and personal relationships, but that she grew weary and bored by this, and realized that she could write about other more cosmic themes. For her, there was a liberation from the angst phase. And here I might add that, as someone influenced by Buddhism, I think that there can be a problem with clinging to angst as a source of creativity, when there can be other sources, too. Do you see yourself as in an angst phase? Or have you passed it? Or do you want to pass it?
I have no idea what kind of phase I’m in and I think it would be foolish to predict what kind of phase I will be going through in the future. I’ve never limited myself in the scope of my subject matter. The appeal of an angsty song (or personal relationship song) is that most people above the age of fifteen can relate. I look at adults, from 18 to 80, and I realize that people constantly let their lives be dominated by fear and anxiety. Fear of fitting in. Fear of failing. I think it would be limiting to rule out angst as a source of creativity. The whole world and everything in it is up for grabs. The longer I live, the more I see my views of the world evolve. At 28, I have a different view of angst than I did at 19. This provides you with a new angle to examine angst or love or anything for that matter. We can still relate to this feeling, it can not be ignored.
Why Texas? How much does being from Texas shape your own sense of identity? What is it about Texas that you love? People, landscapes, Hispanic influence, etc? Is there anything about Texas that you don’t like? Do you think that the worst aspects of Texas can ever inhibit your songwriting? Would you ever consider moving to someplace different, or is Texas so close to your songwriting soul, that if they take Texas out of you, there’s no more you. (I am from San Antonio, by the way, and it will always be home.)
Awe Texas. I’ve been to fortunate enough to travel to a few places, and there are not many like Texas. Texas has this unmatched state pride, bordering on xenophobia. It’s a grand place with an interesting history and independent spirit. People identify with being Texan with as much or more pride than they do being an American. I was born and raised here and I love living here. I probably will always call it home, as this is where my family and friends are. I love to travel and think it would be interesting to live for a short time in a place like New York City, where the city and living conditions are so foreign to how life is structured in Texas.
Texas has this great independent music scene that I feel very fortunate to have grown up around. If I’d grown up in Montana or Kansas, I probably wouldn’t have considered it an option (my apologies if Montana or Kansas does have a large music scene). But here, people kind of do their own thing and they can make a living and grow an audience. Legends have come out of these little towns all around you. It gives you the sense,’ maybe I could do this too.’ While my songs are not directly centered around Texas and are accessible to anyone from anywhere, it would be impossible to discount the influence Texas and its rich music history has had on me. Guys like Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark, Townes, and on and on paved the road that I’m trying to navigate. It’s a point of pride to try to carve out your piece in this longstanding tradition. It will be a part of me regardless of whether I continued to live in Texas.
Some Texas Singer-Songwriters